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Namibians who fought for South Africa in the border war seek end of marginalisation

Namibian military veterans.Leaders of the Namibia War Veterans Trust (Namvet) are visiting South Africa seeking to strengthen their position in claiming their right to military veteran status.

Namvet’s chairman Jabulani Frans Ndeunyema and secretary/treasurer Israel Katjaimo came to South Africa with the goal of organising a local branch and consulting former South West Africa Territorial Force (SWATF) and Koevoet (SWA Police COIN Operation K Division) members, as well as seeking assistance and legal opinion.

The Namibian government refuses to recognise former members of Koevoet or SWATF as military veterans, despite a policy of national reconciliation.

The 2008 Veteran’s Act recognises only those who were members of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), the armed wing of SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organisation), as veterans as well as activists who supported SWAPO.

The legislation does not make provision specifically for veterans of other wars, such as World War Two, in which people born in Namibia might have taken part and specifically excludes those who fought in SWATF or SWAPOL (South West Africa Police) units.

Namibian politicians in recent years, especially President Hifikepunye Pohamba, have said in media statements that these soldiers were not in any way legitimate combatants. This stance is not in line with the Geneva Convention, which says that a combatant group must be commanded “by a person responsible for his subordinates;” must have a “fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance” and be “carrying arms openly”. In other words, it does not apply to spies or suicide bombers, but certainly qualifies police, paramilitary units or military organisations as combatants. (Geneva Convention III, Article 4.)

Ndeunyema said Namvet had organised an ongoing sit-in to convince the Namibian government to negotiate with the veterans. He said: “We are camping in Windhoek, and in Opuwo (in North West Namibia). We remain put, it’s an indefinite camping.”

He said many Koevoet and SWATF members in Namibia were suffering, with some even facing starvation, as they were getting older and did not qualify for benefits, such as pensions.

The Namvet representatives had just met a lawyer and, while they did not discuss details, they said the lawyer had been positive. They expected a legal opinion in four to six months. However, they had not finished negotiating: “We are not at the point of taking legal action. Legal action will be option number two. It is not really expensive because we are so many. Now we are busy with negotiation. We have been busy with negotiation for the last four or five months of the year now. We are still with negotiation. If (that) fails, we are going to see to try to do legal actions. If legal action fails, we will take another step forward.”

Ndeunyema, who said he had served in the Namibian Defence Force after independence and later had gone into business, had decided to start Namvet because of the plight of his former comrades-in-arms. He felt all Namibians, whatever their allegiance before the country’s independence, should all get a share of the nation’s wealth.

The South African Military Veterans Act of 2011 is more inclusive than the Namibian one, stating: “a military veteran is any South African who rendered military service to any of the military organisations, former statutory and liberation armies, which were involved on all sides of South Africa's liberation war from 1960 to 1993; served in the then Union Defence Force before 1961 or became a member of the SANDF after 1994 and has completed his or military training and no longer performs military duties, and has not been dishonourably discharged from his or her respective military organisation.”

This initially meant all former SADF Permanent Force, MK, AZANLA and TBVC (Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei) Homeland state forces members were considered veterans, and after heated debate, former national servicemen and part-time forces of the SADF (Commandos and Citizen Force) were accepted.

However, some former military and police units performing military tasks have fallen through the cracks. These include the former 31/201 “Bushman” Battalion, many members of which now reside at Platfontein, Kimberley, and the former remnants of the defeated Angolan FNLA, which were taken into the SADF as 32 “Buffalo” Battalion. These formerly famous soldiers have been housed at Pomfret, North West Province. Neither are accepted as legitimate veterans, even though the Angolans were given South African citizenship, according to the 32 Battalion website. However, things were done differently in the case of the Reconnaissance Regiments, which had numerous former Namibian, Angolan or Rhodesian members; they were accepted en bloc into the new South African National Defence Force (SANDF) because former Minister of Defence, Joe Modise, wanted the SANDF to have a special operations capability.

Then there is the case of the SA Police COIN units, which include Koevoet. Here too, there is a lack of consistency. While Koevoet and other former COIN units do not receive recognition, the Special Task Force has been accepted into today’s South African Police Service.

Although South Africa’s Department of Military Veterans provides benefits to members, not all have been happy with the Department’s performance. On 6 April, hundreds of military veterans led by the uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA) marched to the Department in Pretoria to protest benefits not being delivered to them and their dependents.

The veterans comprised former African National Congress‚ Pan Africanist Congress and Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) veterans, alongside former SA Defence Force and non-statutory forces. Manase Sifahle, commander of the Johannesburg region of the MK Military Veterans Association, said there were inconsistencies in the allocation of housing and problems with the payment of bursaries and medical benefits to veterans, reported Times Live.

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